There are foods we remember from our younger days that, if they are not quite comfort food, they certainly evoke pleasant memories. For many people who grew up in the New York City area there was a kind of Italian-American restaurant that we loved. Instead of what we’ve grown to recognize as authentic Italian cuisine, it served up the Italian-American classic recipes, such as scungilli, that keep a special place in our hearts.
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Its name was the name of the family that owned it: Christiano’s or Brancato’s and so forth. The tablecloths were red-checked, the waitresses were quick, sassy and not struggling actors. They were packed and you would wait for a table, the candles were set in old Chianti bottles wrapped in straw and the walls were decorated with Italian kitsch. Dean Martin and “Volare” played in the background and on the tables were dispensers of dried oregano, dried garlic powder, red chile flakes, Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper. The Parmesan was not imported, I’m sure. Service was nearly instantaneous as hot bread was brought as soon as you sat down.
We remember the food as being terrific. We ordered antipasto. There was no plural. An antipasto was a platter of iceberg lettuce, canned olives, out-of-season tomato slices, wedges of provolone cheese and rolled-up slices of salami.
The Italian-American glory days of spaghetti
There was lasagna and spaghetti and meatballs, of course. There was veal piccata and shrimp scampi. There was no risotto. These were the days before anybody in America knew there was a cuisine from northern Italy. In fact, when northern Italian food first made its entry into the American restaurant scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s, some of those restaurants advertised themselves with the tag line “no red sauce.” My, how things have changed. Today restaurant-goers know about “a little Tuscan place” and they order carpaccio and tiramisu, two dishes utterly unknown in the Italian-American restaurants of old. Frankly, I miss the spumoni.
Our meals came with garlicky garlic bread that was piping hot and we loved it. Sometimes we ordered pizza, but never as a first course. One dish my mom and I were quite fond of was spaghetti with scungilli. She remembered it from her childhood growing up in Manhattan because her Italian father would make it in the 1920s and ’30s. She remembers liking it but not as much as calamari. She rarely made it at home; it was a dish for the restaurants. The restaurants made it just like her father. Nearly all of these Italian-American restaurants were run by families who traced their origins to southern Italy, especially Sicily, Calabria or the Naples area. But not all these families came from a restaurant tradition or even a tradition of cooking, and so many of them weren’t really very good.
All-American Italian scungilli
Scungilli is usually described as conch, and it can be made with conch, but it is actually whelk or murex, which are mollusks found in the waters around Long Island. I believe it is an Italian-American dish. Although scungilli is an Italian-American corruption of the Neapolitan dialect word, sconciglio, spaghetti with scungilli is not known in Italy. At least scungilli is a word that does not appear in any of my Italian dictionaries nor in any Italian cookbook I own except one.
Spaghetti with Scungilli
You will find scungilli in one of three forms: live in their shell, frozen out of their shell, and canned. Fresh whelk needs to be purged of its impurities. Place in a bowl of cold water and keep changing the water until the last change results in perfectly clear water after 2 hours. This process could take 2 days. Frozen conch meat is frozen fresh and purged, so it, and/or the fresh whelk, needs to be boiled for about 3 hours. Canned scungilli only needs to be heated for 1 minute.
12 whelks (2 to 3 inches long, about 3 pounds) or 1 pound frozen conch meat or two 6-ounce cans scungilli
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh basil leaves
4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
Salt to taste
4 cups water
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
¾ pound spaghetti
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, salt, and add the whelks in their shells (or the frozen conch) and cook for 3 hours, replenishing the water when necessary. Remove from the water, drain and detach the small shell-hard “foot” from the opening. Chop or slice and set aside.
2. In a large flameproof casserole, heat the olive oil over medium heat, then cook, stirring constantly, the parsley, basil and garlic for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and salt and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes. Add the scungilli, reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until tender, 5 to 6 hours, replenishing the water if necessary. The final sauce should be a dense sauce. Season with pepper. (If using canned scungilli, cook the tomato sauce for 15 minutes, add the canned scungilli, and cook 2 minutes and serve with the pasta).
3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing. Transfer the pasta to the sauté pan and toss until well coated with sauce then serve without cheese.
Top photo: Scungilli. Credit: Clifford A. Wright